Two women who have been championing lands rights in Cambodia have been languishing in jail for more than a month on charges which human rights groups say are part of a broader government effort to silence and punish community organizers in the country.
Yorm Bopha and Tim Sakmony, prominent housing rights activists, were arrested in early September after taking part in protests against forced evictions at the Boeung Kak Lake and Borei Keila development sites in Phnom Penh.
But they face charges unrelated to the protests, such as beating up a thief and making a false declaration, which rights groups say do not require pretrial detention at all.
Almost daily protests are held by local rights groups in Phnom Penh to highlight what they call a violation of the duo’s fundamental and constitutional rights.
International nongovernmental groups meanwhile have taken the plight of Yorm Bopha and Tim Sakmony to Cambodia’s foreign donors, asking they that demand Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government drop all charges against the two and release them immediately.
“We are concerned that the legal actions being carried out against Bopha and Sakmony are in fact motivated by their involvement in land-related advocacy campaigns on behalf of the Boeung Kak and Borei Keila communities,” eight international NGOs said in a recent open letter to donor nations pouring millions of dollars into Cambodia’s development.
The letter said that Yorm Bopha and Tim Sakmony had been arrested on “questionable allegations” and that their pretrial detention is contrary to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Cambodia is a party.
It added that such detentions could be made only under “specific circumstances not applicable here.”
“It is indicative of a broader government practice of using the law and judiciary to silence and punish human rights defenders, social activists and community organizers in Cambodia,” the letter said.
Local rights group Licadho said the use of pretrial detention in the two cases “is particularly shocking.”
The law states that such detention may be ordered only where it is necessary to stop an offense from occurring, to prevent witness or victim harassment, to prevent collusion among accomplices, to preserve evidence, to protect public order, or to guarantee the presence and security of the accused, Licadho said.
“None of those circumstances are present in either Bopha or Sakmony’s cases.”
Licadho noted an “increasing use of criminalization and pretrial detention to silence the decent voices of victimized communities, their representatives and human rights defenders.”
Yorm Bopha, a Beung Kak Lake resident, was arrested Sept. 4 by the Phnom Penh Municipal Police on the orders of the city’s Municipal Court judge. She was arrested along with her husband, Lous Sakhorn, who was later released.
After she was questioned at the court, the judge accused Yorm Bopha of “intentional violence with aggravating circumstances” under the Penal Code in connection with the alleged beating of a suspected thief who had stolen mirrors from her car. She was ordered detained at Prey Sar Prison.
Witnesses have told civil society investigators that the individual beaten had been suspected of stealing car mirrors on multiple occasions, according to local rights group Licadho, and that Bopha had complained to local police several times, but they took no action.
On Aug. 7, local residents allegedly beat the suspect as he stood nearby her parked car, the rights group said. Bopha was not present and was never questioned by authorities about the incident until she was summoned to court.
Lous Sakhorn told RFA’s Khmer service that his wife had not been involved in any acts of violence and that she had only been assisting her neighbors in resolving the land dispute at Boeung Kak.
Boeung Kak Lake activists have been protesting evictions since 2008, when a private developer given a land concession by the government began draining the lake to make way for a luxury residential development.
Yorm Bopha had also led daily protests against the municipal government to secure the release of the “Boeung Kak 13”—a group of women who were detained in May and sentenced to between one year and two and a half years on charges of encroaching on private land and obstructing authority.
They were released in June after serving more than a month in prison.
Tim Sakmony, a Borei Keila resident, was summoned before the municipal court and was arrested on Sept. 5 on charges of “disseminating disinformation” under the Penal Code and thrown in Prey Sar Prison. The complaint against Tim Sakmony was filed by Suy Sophan, owner of Phanimex Co., which is developing the Borei Keila site.
Authorities claim that she made a “false declaration” in an attempt to secure an apartment for her 49-year-old disabled son, who is a resident of Borei Keila. Her son is a widower and former soldier who is suffering from partial paralysis and cannot speak.
Members of the Borei Keila community have opposed the demolition of their homes to make way for a commercial real estate project, culminating in a standoff in January, when riot police were called in to evict hundreds of residents.
Phanimex was awarded the Borei Keila community’s land in exchange for a promise to build 10 apartment buildings for the current residents. The company decided to build only eight buildings, however, which led to the ongoing land dispute.
Before her arrest, Tim Sakmony led her fellow residents against the eviction at Borei Keila, refusing to leave the site until Phanimex agreed to construct an additional two buildings for residents. When the company refused, she led a campaign demanding “proper” compensation and additional housing for evictees.
Villagers from both Boeung Kak Lake and Borei Keila have been holding regular protests and prayer vigils for the two women, in addition to demanding that the government intervene on their behalf and allow them to remain in homes on the sites, which they have occupied for years.
Since their arrests, the villagers have petitioned in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, the Ministry of Justice, the Royal Palace, several foreign embassies, and the Council for the Development of Cambodia—where international donors met last month to discuss aid plans for the country.
But authorities have refused to explain why the women have been held for so long without going to trial.
Boeung Kak Lake representative Heng Mom, who led one of the protests, said villagers had called for the Ministry of Justice to intervene to release the two land activists.
He said the villagers had also marched to the Royal Palace where they sought Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni’s intervention on behalf of the two women, but no palace officials would meet with them.
The Borei Keila and Boeung Kak Lake residents are among many petitioning the government over disputes with companies they say have been granted concessions that include land they have lived on for years.
According to Licadho, the government has given away nearly 4 million hectares (15,000 square miles), or 22 percent of the country’s land area, in mining or economic land concessions, in some cases pitting residents against developers and sparking protests.
About 400,000 people have been affected by the concessions, Licadho says.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.